When its first season ended in 1902, the struggling independent Northern League of the Red River Valley lost two teams, but it managed to reform the following year by joining organized baseball at the Class D level and adding Duluth and Superior to its franchises in Crookston, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Winnipeg. After over decade of absence, professional baseball once again had a home in the Zenith City.
That April, contractors hastily built a wooden ballpark with seating for 3,000 called Athletic Park just west of the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway’s ore docks. On April 18—while its ball park was still under construction—the new Duluth franchise merged with the independent Duluth Fashions. The Fashions’ manager, Leonard Van Praagh, became the new team’s manager, replacing W. A. Speedy. Van Praagh shared administration duties with club president M. J. Bryan and treasurer Al. H. Kuehnow.
A consequence of the merger was that two of the Fashions’ players, George W. Wilson and William Holland—both pitchers who were also strong-hitting outfielders—were ruled ineligible by the Northern League due to the color of their skin. Wilson, a southpaw from Michigan who had played for an independent team in Waseca, Minnesota, in 1902, was hailed by the Duluth News Tribune as “without a doubt the best slab man [pitcher] outside the big leagues.” He was one of the last African-Americans to play organized minor league baseball until Jackie Robinson’s appearance for Montreal in 1946.
In an exhibition game on May 9, Duluth took on the Duluth Central High School team. Central’s pitcher Alvin Cummings hurled a complete-game five-hitter with one walk and eight strikeouts. Duluth’s pro team lost to the high school team by a score of 4-1. Cummings would later play professionally for Duluth (1907, 1909-10) and Atlanta (1908).
Duluth opened the season with a 6-1 loss at Fargo on May 20, the first of an eleven-game road trip to start the season. They came home 3-8—one game out of the basement—and faced defending league champion Winnipeg in their home opener on June 1. Both teams stayed at the St. James Hotel and paraded along Superior Street to the ball park, led by Duluth Mayor Trevanion W. Hugo who spoke to the crowd of 1,500 before the game. While Duluth rallied from a 2-9 deficit and out-hit Winnipeg 19-11, the home team lost 10-11. The raw conditions of the field at Athletic Park were blamed for the game’s 12 errors. Duluth got its first home win on June 3, in the final match of its three-game series against Winnipeg.
The 1903 Duluth roster included two men who would go on to play in the major leagues. Lee Quillin (also Quillen and Quillan) was born in North Branch, Minnesota, in 1882, and began his professional career with the Minneapolis Millers in 1902. His 1903 season in Duluth was marked by his arrest during a game on September 1 on charges of assault and battery stemming from an incident two weeks earlier. Quillin had become “enraged at some spectators who were throwing mud at him and jumping into the crowd, it is alleged he struck (Thomas) O’Neil a blow in the face.”
Despite his trouble in 1903, he returned to Duluth for the 1904 season. In 1906, Quillin played shortstop in four late-season games for the Chicago White Sox, the same year the Sox—famously called the “Hitless Wonders”—defeated the heavily-favored Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Although Quillin did not participate in the Series, he was back with the Sox in 1907 playing 49 games as a third baseman, but hitting just .192. Quillin then returned to the minors and played until 1914. He died at age 83 in 1965 in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
Duluth’s other future major leaguer was Hank Gehring, who was born in St. Paul 1881 and like Quillin played for Duluth in both 1903 and 1904. A spitball pitcher, he went 15-9 in 24 appearances in 1903. Gehring played for the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in 1907 and 1908, and was 3-8 with a 3.91 ERA in 18 career appearances in the big leagues. He was the ace pitcher—and a hometown hero—for the American Association’s St. Paul Saints from 1908 to 1911. Gehring signed with the American Association’s Kansas City Blues in 1912, but fell suddenly ill and could not travel with the team to start the season. He died at age 31 in Kansas City on April 18, 1912, from uremia and pyelitis.
Team officials Bryan and Kuehnow both left the club on July 29; Bryan sold his share of the club to railroad conductor J. C. McGreevy and Kuehnow sold to E. W. Lyons of the Duluth Lumber Company. With the turnover of ownership, Van Praagh was left in control of the club’s management both on and off the field. When the season ended on September 7, Duluth sat in fourth place with a 40-50 record. Winnipeg retained its title with a 63-27 record.
Since Duluth was the only club to have won a season series against Winnipeg, the champions accepted Duluth’s challenge for a post-season series starting September 13 at Duluth. The clubs split the first four games played in the series. But when fans traveled to Athletic Park on September 18 for the rubber match, they found the gate locked. Inclement weather had already postponed games in the series, which was unceremoniously canceled. Winnipeg had already left town, off to another post-season series in St. Paul. Duluth’s first season of professional baseball since 1891 had come to an abrupt end in a less than dramatic fashion.
Editor’s Note: While baseball researchers refer to the 1903 Duluth club as the Cardinals, many Duluth News Tribune articles refer to the club as the White Sox.
Story by Anthony Bush; originally appeared on Zenith City Online February, 2013.